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What we know and don't know about this Warriors-Raptors Finals

Written by 
Published in Basketball
Friday, 24 May 2019 13:04

TORONTO -- Eight months after NBA teams opened training camp ahead of the 2018-19 season, we know which two will be competing for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

With the Toronto Raptors coming back from an 0-2 series deficit to take down the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night, Toronto will face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Game 1 tips off back here at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night (9 p.m. ET, ABC).

Here's everything you need to know about the NBA's championship round, which will determine whether the Warriors claim their fourth title in five years or the Raptors grab the first championship in franchise history.

Golden State Warriors

1. How did the Warriors get here?

When the season began, it was universally expected that the Warriors would make it back to the NBA Finals for a fifth consecutive season -- something that hasn't happened since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics in the 1960s. Though Golden State made it, the trip had some hiccups along the way.

There was the much-discussed blowup between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green in November. There was the typical malaise the team is now used to going through during the dog days of the regular season. There were the blown leads at home in Games 2 and 5 against the LA Clippers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. And then there was Durant going down in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets with the series tied 2-2.

Through all of those things, the Warriors survived -- and usually thrived -- as they have for virtually every moment of head coach Steve Kerr's five-year run with the franchise. If the Warriors can get four more wins, Golden State will both complete a three-peat and solidify its status as one of the great dynasties in the sport's history.

2. What's up with Durant and DeMarcus Cousins?

After both were evaluated Wednesday, Durant (calf strain) was still not cleared for on-court activities, though Cousins (torn quadriceps) was. By those diagnoses, it seems likely Cousins will return to the court before Durant -- particularly since neither is supposed to get a status update until Wednesday, the day before Game 1.

Cousins could be an interesting option off the bench for Golden State in this series, as he is probably too big for Raptors' backup big man Serge Ibaka to handle by himself (similar to how Joel Embiid had success against Ibaka earlier in these playoffs). He isn't likely to play a huge role, though, given how much time he has missed already.

Durant's timetable to return is easily the biggest subplot heading into this series. At this point, it seems the earliest he could return is Game 3 in Oakland on June 5, given he has yet to practice. And whenever he does begin to practice, there will be plenty of talk about his role and minutes load once he's back on the court. Those discussions will be magnified if Golden State falls behind early after starting the series on the road.

3. Do the Warriors need KD in this series?

Yes. The idea the Warriors are better without Durant is nonsensical. That being said, it would be equally foolish to think the Warriors are unable to win this series without his services. The Raptors were one of the three best teams in the league this season (along with the Bucks), and they have a deep, talented roster led by one of the game's best players in Kawhi Leonard.

This will not be a repeat of the Western Conference finals, when a depleted Portland Trail Blazers team was simply overpowered by Golden State. This will be at least as difficult a test as the Rockets series was, and probably moreso.

So while the core four of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Green and Andre Iguodala is good enough to get the job done if Durant doesn't play, getting him back would significantly increase Golden State's chances.

4. Durant and Thompson are free agents. Is this the last Finals run for this version of the Warriors dynasty?

Most likely. No one can be too sure of anything that's going to happen this summer, but the odds are against the Warriors looking like this again.

Few in the league expect Durant to return. Thompson is widely expected to re-sign with a max deal on July 1, but there's always the chance those plans could be derailed. Green will be looking for an extension -- what happens if one doesn't come his way? Iguodala and Shaun Livingston will be in the final years of their deals, making their futures tenuous.

All of those variables could break Golden State's way and this same group could be back again for a sixth straight Finals run next season. But the chances aren't too high.

5. Will this be the Warriors' toughest playoff opponent since they got KD?

Yes. This probably will be a controversial opinion, so bear with me for a moment. Though Leonard would come in second behind LeBron James on the list of toughest players the Warriors have faced in a playoff series since Durant arrived in the Bay (yes, he'd be ahead of James Harden), the Raptors have surrounded him with a far deeper team than the ones James had in his past two Finals runs.

Toronto's starting lineup features five all-defense-level players (Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol), and the bench pieces finally rounded into form against the Bucks. This is a deep, versatile roster that can play any style it needs. Leonard is the kind of cold-blooded star required to take on a team as talented as Golden State.

The Warriors have lost one game combined in their past two Finals trips. They will lose at least two this time around.

Toronto Raptors

1. How did the Raptors get here?

This is the culmination of a plan the Raptors put into place last summer. By firing coach Dwane Casey and replacing him with Nick Nurse, trading DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl for Leonard and Danny Green, and dealing Jonas Valanciunas for Gasol, the Raptors proved, time and again, they were not satisfied with having a merely good team.

Instead, the Raptors wanted to make it to the Finals for the first time and truly compete for a championship. Mission accomplished.

It wasn't easy. It took everything Toronto had -- including a miraculous series of bounces on the rim after the buzzer sounded in Game 7 -- to beat the Philadelphia 76ers. Then the Raptors proceeded to lose the first two games of the Bucks series, leading many to write them off. Four consecutive victories later, Toronto finds itself here, becoming the first non-U.S.-based team to reach the league's championship round.

2. Leonard is the best player in the playoffs. How is he doing this after missing most of last season?

The Raptors didn't bow to the pressures of public opinion or derision toward the words "load management" as Leonard missed 22 regular-season games. They allowed Leonard -- in coordination with director of sports science Alex McKechnie -- to chart a course that helped him make it through the regular season healthy, arriving in the postseason ready to perform at peak level.

He certainly has done that repeatedly over the past six weeks. Leonard has put up one sublime game after another since the playoffs began, clearly playing better than anyone else in this postseason and making everyone remember just how good he was with the San Antonio Spurs before losing all but nine games of the 2017-18 season to tendinopathy in his left quad.

Now he has as many as seven games remaining to try to lift the Raptors yet another rung higher. If he's able to do that, this will go down as one of the greatest individual postseason runs in NBA history.

3. How well does Toronto match up against Golden State?

About as well as a team can. This roster has as many players capable of guarding Durant (Green, Leonard and Siakam) as any NBA team. Leonard is the kind of talent good enough to go toe-to-toe with anyone, and the Raptors are capable of creating lots of open looks from 3-point range.

Golden State presents a singular matchup challenge for anyone -- with or without Durant. The Warriors have reminded the world of just how dangerous they are over the past couple of weeks while Durant has been sidelined. They'll need to stay at the focus and intensity level to take down Toronto.

4. How likely are the Raptors to be back here next season?

That entirely depends on what happens with Leonard, who is a free agent this summer. If he re-signs with Toronto, the Raptors will have every chance to get back to the Finals. The only other free agent in Toronto's rotation is Green, and the Raptors probably will be able to bring him back if Leonard returns. Siakam should take another step forward, and Toronto can expect to get more from OG Anunoby, who has sat out the playoffs after an emergency appendectomy. With the same group, the Raptors could easily repeat as East champions.

If Leonard leaves, though, this team could look very different. Lowry, Gasol, Ibaka and Fred VanVleet will all be on expiring contracts, making them trade bait. Toronto probably would avoid spending big money on Green if Leonard doesn't return. The team would instead be retooled in the coming years around Siakam and (maybe) Anunoby. Masai Ujiri, Raptors president of basketball operations, got creative to build this championship contender, and if Leonard leaves he'll have to get creative to build Toronto's next one.

5. What does it mean for the NBA to have Toronto in the Finals?

Quite a bit. Over the past 25 years, the sport has exploded in popularity in Canada, and specifically in Toronto, which has become a hotbed of basketball activity and talent. There were 11 players on NBA rosters from Canada at the start of this season, with several more -- led by RJ Barrett, a projected top-three pick -- on the way next season. The Canadian national team is also expected to contend for a medal at this year's World Championships and at next year's Olympics.

All of that can be tied back to the Raptors coming into existence in 1995 and slowly becoming a consistent playoff threat over the past several years. Toronto reaching the NBA Finals -- and possibly winning a championship -- would only increase the interest in the sport in the country. Remember, Toronto is one of the five largest cities in North America. And this kind of success by a team outside the U.S. will only help if the league pushes to expand further in the future.

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